If you know anything about me or have followed my journey of faith and walk with Jesus, you will know some of the story of me coming to faith in Jesus, going to seminary, being a Protestant pastor and eventually converting to the Catholic Church.
One of the first things I did on this journey, in a desire to understand what the early Christians thought about Jesus and how they interpreted Holy Scripture and lived out the faith, was to read the earliest Christian sources, other than the Bible, I could find. Those were the extant writings of the men we call the Church Fathers.
There are different eras and groups of the Fathers and I don’t want to get too much into that. But two of the earliest Fathers I spent time with were St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom, along with some random writings of some of the Desert Fathers. St. Athanasius was one of the greatest Fathers and Doctors of the Eastern Church. He was Egyptian, born in Alexandria. His work, On the Incarnation, was my introduction to the Fathers and just completely blew my mind. He is one of my heroes of the faith. He stood for the faith at a time when most of the bishops of the Church had strayed into heresy. St. Athanasius stood firm on the deposit of the faith and on who Christ was. He is, in fact, my confirmation saint.
St. John Chrysostom was another one of the early Fathers I was introduced to; again, one of the Eastern Fathers and perhaps the greatest preacher that has ever lived. He was born in Antioch, Syria and was eventually named as the Archbishop of Constantinople. His preaching was heavily influential in my life and journey into the Catholic Church.
What’s the point, you may ask?
My introduction to Catholicism began in the East. Most of the Fathers I read and studied were Eastern. By the East, I mean primarily the Greek, Antiochan, Alexandrian and Syrian Fathers; St. Irenaeus, St. Polycarp, Origen, St. Basil, St. Hippolytus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Melito and others were among my earliest exposures to the Fathers. I have always had a love for the Eastern Fathers. Early on, I considered the Orthodox Church. Frankly, I ended up not joining them because of their separation from Rome. I wanted to be in communion with the Roman Church.
So, I “swam the Tiber” and joined the Latin Rite Western Church. Early on, I knew that I wanted to be part of the oldest practice of the faith I could find. The Novus Ordo, in my mind, has significant problems and I wanted no part of that. So, I gravitated toward the Latin Mass. It is, after all, THE traditional worship and liturgy of the Western Church. I have written about my experience in the Latin Mass and so won’t belabor the point here. I have fully immersed myself in the Latin Rite, learning Latin and teaching myself to pray in Latin. The experience of stepping into the deep stream of the historic worship of the Latin Church has been very rewarding and deeply humbling.
And yet, I have always been attracted to the East. I lean toward them theologically as well. While I love the deep, contemplative rigor of the Latin Rite, it has always felt…what’s the word…sterile. By that I mean it is very organized and structured and rigid. I’m not saying that is wrong. I love the rigidity of it, actually. By nature and practice I tend to be very disciplined and rigid in my own life so the unchanging nature of the Latin Mass is appealing to me.
I say all of this because I experienced something yesterday that I want to talk a bit about. I was finally able, at the invitation of a dear friend, to attend a Byzantine Catholic Church. For the record, I didn’t know until fairly recently that such a thing existed. I assumed that all the churches in the East were either Orthodox or Roman Catholic. What do they say about assuming….?
Anyways, my buddy and I attended St. Athanasius Byzantine Catholic Church for Divine Liturgy yesterday. How ironic, that the church is named after my confirmation saint…We walked into the church and I knew instantly that this would be unlike anything I had ever experienced. The priest and cantor were praying Matins. Well, I say praying. They were chanting the prayers.
The whole setting literally felt like I had just stepped out of our world and into another realm, another time and place (think about the wardrobe in Narnia). There were dozens upon dozens of beautiful and serene icons all over the church. At the “front” was an iconostasis, a wall with three gates. It was bedecked with icons. The center gate was golden and flowery, with a red curtain drawn behind it. I could hear someone (the priest) behind the wall chanting and singing and I heard bells constantly ringing. Not loud and clanging, but tingling bells almost like sleigh bells constantly ringing. I wondered what was making that noise and didn’t have long to guess. The priest came out from the left side gate and was swinging a censer that was billowing incense. The bells were attached to the censer. It was a melodious and intriguing sound.
A deacon, noticing that we looked a little lost, came over and introduced himself to us. He was most kind and engaging and helpful in explaining some things. He informed us also on the symbolism of all that we were seeing. The icons were representative of the saints and great cloud of witnesses. The iconostasis and the sanctuary behind it symbolically represented heaven and the nave represented earth. Other than that, he said, “I wouldn’t necessarily try to keep up. Just observe. You are all free to receive the Eucharist so long as you are in good standing with the Church, as we are in communion with Rome.”
As the Divine Liturgy began, it was a sensory overload. The icons, the incense, the processions, the chanting and singing back and forth between priest, deacon, cantor and congregation, the bowing, the gates of the sanctuary being opened and closed; it was an entirely immersive experience. It was truly wonderful to be there. It felt exactly as I would imagine it would feel to be immersed in the worship scene around the throne of God in St. John’s Apocalypse. We stood almost the entire liturgy. The priest’s homily was powerful and timely.
It was at once ethereal yet earthly, transcendent yet palpable, symbolically rich yet easily accessible. It really was precisely the opposite experience of a Roman Mass and a remarkable experience of joining with the saints in glory in worship. Where the Roman Mass feels austere and severe (I don’t say that to be critical), the Byzantine Liturgy was rich and stunningly sensory. I found myself, after receiving the Eucharist, to be very emotional.
After the Liturgy, we were invited by the small congregation to have lunch with them. The people were so warm and friendly and welcoming. We will definitely return to that parish soon. I learned something yesterday.
The Church needs the East. She needs the East for the rich diversity and splendor of her Liturgy. She needs the West for the structure and discipline that so characterizes it. The Church, the Body of Christ, needs to breathe with both lungs, East and West.
Let us embrace one another and not be afraid of our differences. They make the Body of Christ rich and deep! Thanks be to God for His grace to us in our diversity!
The priest moved to the Gospel side of the altar. He began to chant the Gospel. My four-year-old daughter turned to look at me with big eyes.
“Daddy, who is that?”
“Who is who, baby?”
“Is that Jesus?”
“Is who Jesus?”
“The man who’s singing. Is that Jesus?”
I smiled at her. “Yes, it is.”
Yesterday my family and I attended the only Latin Mass offered in our diocese. I had been once before with my eldest daughter, but this was the first time my youngest and wife came also. It was a sweet moment. We’re tempted to say, “Oh how cute and innocent children are.” But before we too quickly dismiss this as kids being cute, I would like for us to consider something.
I want to consider the wonder of the worship of the Church.
When the Church gathers for worship on Sunday, we are participating in the worship of the Church as she has worshiped for ages past, as she is worshiping now around the throne of Heaven and receiving a small foretaste of how she will worship in eternity.
There is a great mystery here. We too quickly move on from it to our great detriment. I fear that, in the modern Catholic Church, we have lost sight of what is really happening when we come to Mass. Some of that truncated and selfish view of worship I blame on the liturgy and some I blame on a lack of proper teaching and catechesis.
We have failed miserably in teaching our faith to those who are currently in the Church. This has been an ongoing problem for some time. We have failed to catechize and the clergy, in many instances, have failed to preach and teach well. It is no wonder that, according to the Pew Research findings, only 31% of Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We haven’t taught our people what the Church actually believes. We’ve just told them to show up and do as they’re told and don’t ask questions.
It’s no wonder there’s no wonder. It’s no wonder Mass feels dry and dull. It’s the Church’s fault.
Which brings me back to my youngest this past Sunday.
She intuitively senses that something mysterious is happening when we come to Mass (the Latin Mass). She is more imaginative than me, less impeded by modernity and cynicism. She feels the symbolic, nay the realism, going on at the altar when the priest stands in persona Christi, praying and speaking on behalf of his people. We’ve lost that in our modern liturgy. We’ve lost something instinctive, something primal, something holy and transcendent in our worship.
My good friend, Ben Harris, writes it this way:
“For many years, we have been told about a "springtime of the Church", an age in which we were finally ready to take on the world with our "new evangelism" after the long winter of old Christendom. This springtime, the warming of the world, and shattering of barriers was heralded to be the end of militant, defensive Catholicism: a day when we could cease guarding ancient coals with tenacious diligence to sow gospel seeds into fertile ground. And, during the tenuous peace of a post-Second World War era, the temptation to see society as entering a new age must have been overwhelming. At the dawn of the Second Vatican Council, the West had moved from decades of industrial warfare, societal collapse, the death of old Christian monarchies, economic devastation, and genocide into an era of relative peace and prosperity. I am sure that, to the Council Fathers, everything must have been telling them that our "springtime" had finally come... but springtime is never as cut and dry as that.
We were promised an ecclesiastical springtime, and that's exactly what we got. In the temptation of sunny days, we let the warm fire of tradition grow cold, failed to gather more wood to keep the hearths burning, and hastily planted our gardens, only to be left wondering how our seedlings could be buried under snow as we shiver by dying coals. Our springtime optimism was dashed by the bitter north-winds of communism, secularism, the sexual revolution, corrupted clergy, and rising persecution of Christianity in the heart of old Christendom. Like the disciples, we went with Christ into a cheering Jerusalem, only to see him crucified as we ran from his presence.
Still, there is work to be done. We cannot cower in disappointment and let the coals of tradition burn out because our hasty planting has died in the ice of modernity. Through study and liturgical reverence, we gather fuel to rebuild the fire of tradition into a blazing inferno; through our prayers, we carefully cover the tender plants to keep them safe from frost; through our evangelism, we open the door of our warm home to those shivering in the unexpected snow. Now is not the time to experiment and rush to plant new fields, but to remain faithful, prudent, and dedicated to age-old ways. If, like the Blessed Mary and St. John, we remain close to Christ and return to the tradition he gave to us, we will behold the Church in her resurrection with her risen Lord.
In the various traditional rites of the Church, be they Latin, Byzantine, Maronite, Anglican, etc., there is an air of wintertime sobriety. The cold rains of post-modern chaos, political extremism, heresy, paganism, and moral degeneracy pour outside, but in these ancient liturgies the fires of tradition sustain the family of God in health and safety. There is no place for experimental optimism either in the ancient Mass, or in the present crisis of the Church. Our task of wintertime labor has not yet given way to the ease of warm days and late sunsets, so return to the warmth of tradition, brave the snowy wind of the world, and fulfill the duty you have been given.”
The wonder of the warmth of tradition is that it teaches us something on a primal, even soul level that we cannot possibly hope to fully explain. We are formed by the tactile reality of the movements of our bodies: kneeling, making the sign of the cross on our bodies, genuflecting, bowing, opening our mouth and receiving the Blessed Sacrament. The wonder of the practice of our faith we see when the priest faces the altar, on our behalf, and offers up the present sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our sins and the sins of the whole world, as it has been done in the liturgy of the Church for the last 2000 years.
Our children see that and feel that in an unadulterated and beautiful way that we would do well to learn from. In the traditional liturgies of the Church, we are (in the words of my friend Ben) “infantililzed”, not feeding ourselves with our own hands but being fed by the loving hands of a Saviour and brought into the warm embrace of a loving Father. We are not in control and that is a very good thing.
“Daddy, is that Jesus?”
Yes, my daughter.
That is Jesus, dying on the cross for the sins of the world.
That is Jesus, standing even now at the throne of God pleading His own shed blood.
That is Jesus, calling His brothers and sisters to pray and kneel and bow and weep before Him.
That is Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity, come in the flesh so that you and I may literally embrace the wonder of salvation right before our very eyes.
That is Jesus whom we receive at the altar when we kneel in humble submission, understanding that we cannot feed ourselves.
That is Jesus and He is the wonder of it all.
Thanks be to God!